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Public Interest Law

There are many segments of legal practice in the United States. As a whole, it can be divided into two overarching components:  the practice of public law and private law. When students enter law school, many will decide at that time which type of law they intend to pursue. Much of the time underlying motivations are at the heart of these decisions. Some law students follow a humanitarian path by specializing in law that benefits an organization or group of people who can't afford to hire a private attorney. These lawyers will often pursue some form of public interest law based on a personal passion.

Public interest law focuses on legal services and reformations offered, in some capacity, to benefit the public's interest. It includes services offered to nonprofit organizations, the government sector, international groups, as well as private attorneys who perform work at no charge for charitable organizations, community groups, schools, and the underprivileged.

One of the primary motivators for many lawyers in public service is simply a passion to pursue what they believe to be work for the greater good. Many lawyers in this field enter it because they desire to fight a particular injustice.  This internal drive will often mean the attorney will seek employment in areas that are most meaningful to them personally.

The types of employment in public law vary. For instance a public attorney may be hired by the district attorney's office to act in the capacity of public defender. They will serve to benefit clients who are unable to afford an attorney. They will defend their client in court, representing their interest, which is one of their legal rights. In this manner the public defender acts on behalf of the public by upholding an individual's rights. A public lawyer may also work as the public prosecutor. In this case the attorney will represent the voice of the people, government, and the law. In both instances the attorneys represent some form of legal public interest.

Other employers of public interest law include:

  • Environmental agencies
  • Human rights groups
  • Labor boards
  • Charities
  • Federal, state, and local government
  • Schools and universities
  • International organizations

There are many reasons why an attorney would choose to practice public law. While it may be true that many public interest law positions offer less salary than a private counterpart, there are tradeoffs. The public lawyer will often enjoy greater personal benefits than the private attorney. They often have better job stability. They will usually have a retirement plan, health benefits, and structured work hours including vacation time. 

Private attorneys may work longer hours, provide their own insurance, and may encounter less time off. The lawyer who pursues public interest law may find some balance between public and private law by working in a private law firm that also offers pro bono work. In this case the attorneys may be able to offer humanitarian services while still earning a larger salary.

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